For the first time, U.S. soldiers and their allies are being hunted by drones sent by the Islamic State.
“ISIL has been able to take commercial
drone technology right off the shelf and make it an effective weapon,”
said Maj. Gen. Walter E. Piatt, the head of the U.S. Army’s Rapid
Capabilities Office. “As a result our soldiers have
had to look up to worry about threats from the air. The air domain, an
area we have dominated for a long time, is being contested.”
The United States has enjoyed air
superiority during its current military operations in the Middle East.
While the drones themselves do not contest America’s control of the
skies, the enemy drones means that Americans face “death
from above” for the first time in decades. The Islamic State’s use of
drones also marks the first time that drone technology has been used by
Islamic militants have modified
store-bought drones to make them lighter, faster, and capable
of carrying weapons. In October, a drone deployed by Islamic
State forces killed two Kurdish soldiers in the first deadly terrorist
drone attack. Two previous drone attacks against Iraqi forces did not
cause casualties. Drones are also regularly used by the Islamic
State for reconnaissance on Iraqi forces.
“You can imagine a scenario where coordinated drones could be used in a terror attack,” Piatt said.
The Islamic State is not the only extremist
group that has shown a capacity to innovate, Piatt told American Media
Institute on the sidelines of the Capitol Hill 2017 Defense &
National Security outlook briefing. The annual meeting
explores potential military threats and possible innovations by
bringing together leaders in Congress, the armed services, and the
defense industry. This year’s briefing emphasized the fast pace at
which America’s rivals and enemies are upgrading.
Russia’s military capability is more
advanced than is commonly understood, said Piatt, who spent significant
time in the Ukraine as part of his prior NATO duties. Far from a
demoralized army incapable of paying its soldiers, Russian
forces in the Ukraine have unveiled some high-tech innovations.
“They have some unmanned aerial
vehicle technologies for which we don’t have an answer,” Piatt said.
Russia is working on a number of new drone and anti-drone systems,
according to recent reports in Russian and U.S. media. These
include two submersible drones: the Surrogat, which could be used to
imitate the presence of a nuclear submarine; and the Kanyon, which may
be capable of carrying a nuclear payload.
U.S. defense spending peaked at $721
billion in 2010 and it has edged downward ever since, according to data
from the U.S. Government Publishing Office. This year the Pentagon will
spend an estimated to $577 billion– a reduction
of 20% from the 2010 peak.
The Defense department asked Congress for an additional $20 million specifically to address the drone threat earlier this year.
Reduced spending and budgets mean America’s
military must be ready to adapt civilian technologies for the
battlefield, particularly in dealing with drones and cyber-security
“We have to look at technologies that are
being developed for a civilian purpose and look at ways we can apply
them for a military purpose,” said Piatt.
“We are increasingly focusing on UAVs,”
said Vice Admiral Philip Cullom, who works on U.S. Navy readiness and
logistics. “UAVs are taking a lot more of our time and will do so in the
future, and we need not just to think about
them as a warplane without a pilot.”
More than a quarter century after the
collapse of the Soviet Union, the admiral said, the Pentagon’s
great challenge is to remain flexible while the United States faces foes
who are quicker to adapt than the draftees of the old
“Today, we have to be able to innovate and deploy new technologies with a reduced timeline,” Cullom said.
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